Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Tainted vaccines: a reply to Copenhagan and Wolfe

It difficult to keep track of all the different hares being started in the debate about the liceity of the COVID-19 vaccines, and this is not an attempt to do so. It is a specific reply to two short treatments of the problem of vaccines developed, tested, or manufactured using cells taken from (or descended from those taken from) an infant who had been killed by abortion.

These treatments are those by Fr. Michael Copenhagen, here, and by Fr Phil Wolfe, here.

The agument

Both priests base their arguments on the duty of returning stolen property. The cells of the aborted infant are clearly not the lawful posession of the institutions or researchers making use of them. As noted here, the degree of use made of these cells in the manufacturing process varies, and these authors appear to be principally addressing the case in which they are used most comprehensively; for the sake of argument let that be the test case. Their claim, then, is that since it is wrong to acquire, use, or benefit from stolen property, then it is wrong to take the vaccine; the seriousness of the wrongdoing is compounded by the kind of theft at issue, one which involves the killing of the victim and a lack of respect for his mortuary remains.

Fr Copenhagan:

The recipient is an immediate participant in the commission of continuous theft of human remains obtained through deliberate killing, their desecration through exploitation and trafficking, as well as ultimate omission to respectfully bury them.

Fr Wolfe:

Human tissue obtained in such a manner is not an object of possession, and can never be an object of possession, irregardless if they are producing vaccines for every disease on Earth. The evil use of fetal tissue for someone’s good cannot justify the situation: it is a screaming violation of justice.

Response to the Argument

1. Is this principle of restitition really at issue? No.

The application of the duty of restitituion to this problem is a surprising one. One might think that, if abortion is morally tantamount to the murder of the innocent, the possession of the victim's mortal remains is the least of the problems one is faced with. It is cetainly true that these remains should be respectfully interred, but the question of restitution as such does not really arise, since it seems extremely unlikely that there are any identifiable near relations who would be willing to receive the stolen property. 

If, again, as I would prefer to say in accordance with the legal tradition of England and Wales, human tissue is never an 'object of possession', and cannot be bought or sold, then the question is not actually one of theft, but simply of the disrespectful taking and using of human issue. This is a moral issue, but if separated from the question of murder, it is not a very serious one. 

Suppose a thief entered my house and collected some living cells of mine from a bandage I had been using, or a hair follicle in my comb, or cheek cells on my toothbrush, and made off with them in order to develop a line of cells in which to breed viruses for research purposes. I should be entitled to complain, certainly, but as violations of my bodily integrity go, it is at the lower end of the scale.

2. Is the duty not to benefit from stolen property absolute? No.

Suppose we conceded to Copenhagan and Wolfe that the problem is one of stolen property, the question then is whether the duty not to benefit from stolen property is absolute. Especially in light of the fact that it is for practical purposes impossible to find anyone to whom restitution could be made in this case, does the fact that an item has been stolen at some time in the past mean that one is prohibited from making use of it today?

The answer is clearly 'no'. It is perfectly true that stolen goods, even when bought in good faith, must be restored to their rightful owner, but this principle is clearly not intended to apply beyond a certain practical limit. The owner of land who finds treasure buried by a highwayman two hundred years ago is not obliged to trace the descendents of the original owners and return it to them. (In another quirk of the law of England and Wales, it actually belongs to the Crown: though not because it had been stolen, just because it was buried with the intention of recovery.) 

The suggestion that, if it is clearly impossible to trace the original owners, then it would be morally impermissible for anyone to benefit from the treasure in any way, is, I'm sorry to say, ludicrous.

It so happens that I recently discovered that the house I have owned for more than a decade was built on land taken into private ownership under the UK Enclosures Act of 1773. I regard this Act, and even more the way it was applied, as thorougly unjust. Does that mean I should not live in it? What should I do to it? Burn it down? I think many Americans and Canadians have an even more pressing problem, occupying land once belonging to native peoples.

An aristocratic English lady who inherited property owned by a religious order until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, before becoming a Catholic, actually brought her problem to the Pope of the time, in a state of some distress. The property was not only stolen, after all, but stolen sacrilegiously and with all manner of circumstantial injustices. He (Leo XIII, I think) told her what anyone endowed with common sense would tell her: calm down! It was a long time ago. [I believe I read this anecdote in Faith and Fortune by Madeleine Beard but I can't lay my hands on my copy right now.]

The Problem with Tainted Vaccines

It was not my wish to minimise the seriousness of abortion in the forgoing remarks. On the contrary, I think that the problem with the argument made by Copenhagan and Wolfe is precisely that it distracts our attention from the real problem, the unspeakable crime of abortion, and focuses it instead on the comparitively minor issue of historic theft. 

It is very surprising that Copenhagan and Wolfe do not focus in the conventional way on the degree of cooperation the potential beneficiaries of the vaccines have with the abortion, the alternatives open to them, and the degree of inconvenience involved in refusing vaccines tainted in this way. I can only assume that their alternative approach is an attempt to circumvent the extremely well-trodden path taken by the Manualist tradition in dealing with such cases, and attempt to create a direct route to connect the end-user of the vaccine with something intrinsically evil.

Since this attempt, in my view, fails, we are forced back to the traditional way of analysing the problem. Clearly the conscientious end-user need not intend any statement of support for abortion by accepting the vaccine, and equally clearly the vaccination is only remotely connected with the original abortion. The question is not, then, a black and white matter of intrinsic evil, of actions which can never be done regardless of the consequences, but one in which the closeness of the connection, the seriousness of the original crime, and the 'inconvenience' (in the traditional terminology) of not using it. Remote material cooperation with evil can be licit if avoiding it is seriously difficult.

It is not out of softness or lack of zeal that our predecessors in the Faith accepted this conclusion. It is the only possible conclusion one can draw. Refusing to do intrinsically evil actions will occasionally require heroism, but it is always possible. Avoiding all cooperation with evil, even remote material cooperation, in simply impossible. I cannot vote, pay taxes, use the internet, open a bank account, or patronise a large shop, without remote material cooperation with evil: abortion, usury, unjust wars, pornography, slave labour, and so on. We must protest, of course, but even our protests can lose their force if we are protesting about everything.

Just to focus on the world of medicine, the case is often raised of benefitting from Nazi experimnents. Much closer to home, however, and more perhaps grist to the Copenhagan and Wolfe mill, we might ask about the work of the 'resurrection men' who for several centuries supplied medical students with subjects for dissention from freshly dug gaves, especially if the hangman ever slackened in his work. The whole of modern medicine is based on the knowledge built up on the basis of the study of these unfortunates. The very pervasiveness of the problem, however, brings its own, unfortunate, solution. Not benefitting from this work is impossible, and we are not obliged to do the impossible.

The degree of cooperation with abortion involved in using tainted vaccines is greater, and the original crime more serious, than the degree of cooperation with grave-robbing involved in using doctors educated in a body of knowledge based on that crime. Furthermore, avoiding this cooperation is not so comprehensively impossible. This is true and I urge readers to take the issue seriously. Nevertheless, it is clearly not the case that taking the vaccine is intrinsically evil, and its licitness will vary according to the circumstances of the end-user.

Monday, February 15, 2021

On tainted vaccines

Since it may be useful to others, I am publishing her a long email reply to a question I received on this question in the context of the COVID vaccine (with very minor tweaks).


The use of cell-lines from aborted babies in the development of vaccines is sadly of long standing, so the question has been asked, and answered, before. It is as you say a form of cooperation in evil, but it is ‘material’ rather than ‘formal’, and ‘remote’ rather than ‘proximate’.
The first distinction is about whether you intend the evil. If you contribute to an abortion by, saying, driving a woman to the clinic, because you want her to have an abortion, that is formal cooperation, and as serious an any kind of involvement. If you fill the car with fuel, knowing what it is for, but just because it’s you job to fill up cars with fuel, it’s ‘material’ cooperation. That can still be serious, but it is a different category.

Even material cooperation can be ‘proximate’, that is ‘close’: selling a gun to a known murderer just for the money is close cooperation, it brings you very close to the evil. Paying taxes knowing that some of the money will be used for bad purposes, or buying things in a shop whose owners make donations for bad things, is remote cooperation.

We should avoid all cooperation with evil if we can easily do so. We can’t say: we should never cooperate in the smallest way with evil, because that would be impossible. So we make another distinction, about how easy it is to avoid cooperation: between ‘grave’ and ‘slight’ ‘inconvenience’. Grave inconvenience is when, say, your job, and perhaps the welfare of family members, is put in jeopardy.

Regardless of the level of inconvenience, formal cooperation in mortal sin is always wrong, because it is itself mortal sin. By intending the sin, we make it our own.

With material cooperation, the closeness tells us the level of inconvenience one should be prepared to suffer. One can’t be exact here, but remote material cooperation does not require us to suffer grave inconvenience. Instead one should balance the good to be gained against the evil of the cooperation.

You’d find all this in any textbook of moral theology from the old days, and indeed orthodox ones from today.

It’s for you to decide how much ‘inconvenience’ changing your job would be, but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has in the past said that the level of cooperation in evil represented by being vaccinated with a vaccine developed from this cell-line is sufficiently remote to allow people to take it in order to secure the good of immunity from a serious disease, but they urged people to protest. It’s not nothing. The Bishops I think have in fact protested.

It is a question for each individual how important the good of immunity is in itself. Your question though is also about administering the programme of giving the vaccine, so the question is about the good, to you and others, of this particular job.

The old text books used an example of a Catholic type-setter who found himself being asked to set type for a pornographic book. If his family depended on his income, he should look for another job before leaving the present one. In other words, he can put up with this level of cooperation in evil at least in the short term. Whether it is possible to escape even in the longer term depends on other things. Are there any jobs where we will not be asked to cooperate in this kind of thing, that we can actually get? Certainly, there are fewer than there used to be.


The major magisterial document on the issue is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Instruction Dignitatis Personae (2008).

Some useful information was included in an article in the Irish Catholic by Dr Helen Watt (she comes to very much the same conclusion as I do):

It needs to be said at the outset that foetal cell-lines are not the same as actual foetal parts or tissue. Such tissue was itself sourced from historical abortions: a horrifying practice involving close complicity with those performing the abortion. The tissue was then used many years ago to make various cell-lines that circulate in labs today and are used in developing some vaccines. Although in the case of the HEK 293 cell-line there is some possibility that it may have come from a miscarriage, I will assume that this cell-line too originated, as seems all too likely, from a deliberate abortion.
Foetal cell-lines are developed from the original cells or tissue: they do not include any cells of the unborn child. It is also worth noting that where they are used for vaccines, these cell-lines are used not as intended ingredients (even if some fragments of cells remain) but to prepare the vaccine in or e.g. to test it on.
The Covid-19 vaccine candidates range from those that did not involve foetal cells at any stage (for example, CureVac), to those that used foetal cells at every stage: design, testing and production (for example, Astra-Zeneca). Other vaccines again (for example, Pfizer) do not use a foetal cell-line in ongoing production, but did use one in confirmatory tests.